MLS Season Preview: San Jose Earthquakes

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Injuries, a shaky defense and some plain bad luck sent the San Jose Earthquakes crashing down in 2013, sliding down from the team that won the Supporters’ Shield in 2012 to a team that couldn’t even make the playoffs last season. But, provided the team hasn’t actually been cursed, it’s highly unlikely 2014 will be as disappointing for Quakes fans.

Why? They’ve got their new head coach locked down for the season. The side is healthy. Sensible, strong acquisitions were made since the start of the 2013 season. The defensive holes have been mended. And really, just how much bad luck can one team attract?

After scoring 27 goals in 2012, Chris Wondolowski scored just 11 last season, primarily due to playing most of the year with a broken toe. He’s back to health, as are Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, so the goals should be coming more freely – particularly if Lenhart has learned to control his temper.

On the other end, bringing in Clarence Goodson midway through last season proved to be one of San Jose’s smartest moves, strengthening the defense to the point where the Quakes conceded just 10 times in their last 14 games. And with Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi now on board, Sam Cronin doesn’t need to spend quite as much time covering for the disappointing Rafael Baca, and can be more effective in his role as defensive midfielder.

LATEST MLS 2014 SEASON PREVIEWS, HERE

Players In: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi (Discovery); Atiba Harris (Trade with Colorado); Billy Schuler (Weighted lottery); Tommy Thompson ( Homegrown); Bryan Meredith (Free); J.J. Koval (SuperDraft); Shaun Francis, Brandon Barklage (Re-Entry Stage 2)

Players Out: Ramiro Corrales (Retired); Nana Attakora, Dan Gargan, Marcus Tracy, Evan Newton, Peter McGlynn, Cesar Diaz Pizzaro (Option declined); Mehdi Ballouchy (Out of contract); Jaime Alas (Loan expired); Rafael Baca (Transfer to Cruz Azul); Justin Morrow (Trade to Toronto); Marvin Chávez (Trade to Colorado); Steven Beitashour (Trade to Vancouver); David Bingham, Sam Garza (Loan to San Antonio)

Key Player: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi

source: AP
Can Pierazzi provide the missing link for San Jose?

Yes, it would be easy to put Wondolowski here. But we know what he can bring to a side when fully fit: goals, goals, and more goals. He will bother defenders and even create chances. But he, alone, cannot pull the Quakes out of the mire.

Enter Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. The central midfielder, about at his prime at age 28, began his professional career with AC Ajaccio in 2006 and has been with the French club ever since. He’s not going to be a goalscorer (he’s had just two goals in his career) but Pierazzi is the man that San Jose are hoping can help with ball distribution in the center of the field. If he’s as good as they hope at winning the ball and getting it out wide to spark an attack, then calling him “key” is no exaggeration.

Manager: Mark Watson, who took over the reins as interim manager when Frank Yallop departed last June, was appointed as the Quakes head coach in October. He’s been with the team since 2010, when he came on as assistant coach. Watson earned his promotion by righting the sinking ship, patching up the defense to go unbeaten in the last seven games of the season. Plus, he must get some credit – and some adoration from the fans – for steering his side to a comeback win over the LA Galaxy, just a few weeks after taking over as head coach.

Outlook: If luck is on San Jose’s side, they’ll certainly have a much brighter season in 2014. The midfield’s been strengthened, the defense sorted out, and if Wondo can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think the Quakes won’t make an impression in the West. It may not be another Supporters’ Shield season, but they should easily make the playoffs.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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Swansea City’s bid to slow down steamrolling Liverpool begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The rampaging Reds are coming off a 4-3 win that ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League season, and will hope to avoid a let down against desperate Swans.

The Welsh hosts are six points adrift in the race for Premier League safety, and look set for a 5-4-1 with Jordan Ayew the only forward. Wilfried Bony and Oliver McBurnie are on the bench along with attack-minded Luciano Narsingh.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Van der Hoorn, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Ki, Fer, Clucas, Dyer, Ayew. Subs: Nordfeldt, Bartley, Roque Mesa, Carroll, Narsingh, McBurnie, Bony.

Liverpool: Karius, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Milner, Klavan, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

Kevin De Bruyne commits to Man City through 2022-23

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and he’s committing his prime to the club which has taken him to the next level.

[ MORE: How will Arsenal, Man Utd line up? ]

Manchester City announced a new deal for the Belgian wizard, keeping him at the Etihad Stadium through 2023.

De Bruyne, 26, has posted 31 goals and 38 assists for Pep Guardiola‘s men since returning to England from the Bundesliga, and appreciates being given a lot more money. From ManCity.com:

“As I’ve said previously, my intention has always been to stay here at City, where I’ve felt at home from day one. Not only are we winning – we are playing great football. It’s a pleasure to be a part of and I’m really excited about what we can achieve in the coming years.”

De Bruyne is in the discussion for a Ballon d’Or finalist spot this year, along with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and others (Hot take: This does seem to be year Ronaldo possibly knocked off, barring a remarkable run in the Champions League or World Cup).

After the swap: Alexis, Mkhi-infused XIs for Man Utd, Arsenal

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The deal is done: Henrikh Mkhitaryan has moved to Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez going the other way in a monumental January move.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

How will it look for each side once the shape’s settled?

Arsenal

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was at his very best — for Borussia Dortmund in 2014-15 — he was deployed as a left or right wing. He contributed 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 matches during his final season at the Westfalenstadion, and predictably saw those numbers drop as Jose Mourinho consistently moved him toward an attacking center midfield role.

He’ll get the chance to go out wide again at the Emirates Stadium, though perhaps not always to the extreme flanks. Expect Alexandre Lacazette‘s numbers to explode with this move.

Arsene Wenger used a 4-3-3 to batter Crystal Palace 4-1 at the weekend, with Ozil on the right wing and Alex Iwobi on the left. The club still needs better at center defensive mid while Aaron Ramsey is out, so that will likely keep the lineup similar until he returns (at a minimum):

Cech

Bellerin — Mustafi — Koscielny — Montreal

Elneny (Ramsey, eventually)

Xhaka — Wilshere

Ozil — Lacazette — Mkhitaryan

By the way, a lot of Arsenal supporters aren’t feeling great about this (understatement alert):

Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez prefers left wing, too, and Mourinho has a trio of in-form players who like that side of the field. Anthony Martial is red hot but plays wider than Jesse Lingard, and it seems one of them will take the slot of Juan Mata to the right of Paul Pogba in a 4-1-4-1. Marcus Rashford could also see the far right positioning.

But against top competition — continued apologies to Burnley — it’s usually a 4-2-3-1 for Mourinho with Pogba dropping next to Nemanja Matic a little deeper in the formation. Lingard has been getting the run as CAM here, usually to the detriment of Juan Mata. With Alexis as the clear-cut left wing in this formation, it causes real combat for the two other slots between Mata, Lingard, Rashford, and Martial.

So while it’s likely we’d see something like this in a big game for Manchester United…

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Pogba

Martial — Lingard —  Sanchez

Lukaku

… We’d love to see something more like this:

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Herrera

Pogba

Martial — Lukaku — Sanchez

How do you think Wenger and Mou will run ’em out?

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

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Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…